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  The Embarrassing Republican Friends of Planetary Defense
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COMMENTARY:

The Embarrassing Republican Friends of Planetary Defense

by JOHN HICKMAN
The obvious problem with the two Republican friends of planetary defense is that they are far from paragons of rational scientism.
Is defending the Earth from catastrophic collisions with enormous chunk of cosmic debris an American responsibility? That’s the question The New York Times reporter Warren E. Leary has William Ailor asking at the March 5-8, 2007 Planetary Defense Conference at Georgetown University: “Should one nation, the United States,” queries conference chair Ailor, “be responsible for the entire planet?” The short answer to his question is “yes.” The United States is responsible for protecting the entire planet by detecting and deflecting any killer asteroids or comets heading toward Earth.

In principle, of course, other countries with serious space programs—Russia, China, Japan and the 17 member states that cooperate through the European Space Agency—should all be willing to shoulder a proportionate share of the costs of defending the planet from the statistically non-trivial threat of enormous, fast-moving space debris. Moreover the other 180-plus countries that lack serious space programs also should chip in their share of the costs of protecting our common and only home. However, such a collective assumption of responsibility is precisely what scholars of international politics would not predict. Instead they would predict rational rather than principled action. What that means is that while several of the space powers might be willing to shoulder minor parts of the burden, they would join every other country on the planet in allowing the United States to assume most of the responsibility.

The problem with achieving any proportionate cost sharing in this is that defense against catastrophic space debris strikes is an exceedingly pure public good. That’s because the devastation caused by a kilometer-long asteroid smacking the Earth would be planet-wide, and as a consequence detecting and deflecting it would benefit everyone else on the planet just as much as it would Americans. What that means is that there is no way to exclude any country from benefiting from American efforts to provide this public good, even if only for the United States. The result is an open invitation to ‘free ride.”

That the rational pursuit of individual self-interest or national interest undermines cooperation to provide public goods is one of the more frequent observations made by social scientists. That helps to explain why the United States assumed a disproportionately high share of the total military spending among NATO member states during the Cold War and why the British Navy undertook the heavy lifting to suppress the Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century. So although it inevitably results in the sort of complaint expressed in William Ailor’s question, the weak often exploit the strong in international efforts to provide public goods.

Scientific and statistical illiteracy that prevents most Americans from understanding the nature of the threat from cosmic debris.
Politics of a different sort was obviously on the minds of many of the presenters at the 2007 Planetary Defense Conference. Comments made during the panel discussion on the last day of the conference reveal frustration about persuading ordinary Americans that the threat is serious and persuading American politicians that more money should be spent on planetary defense. Serious public discussions of doomsday asteroids inevitably encounter giggles that are the result of Hollywood science fiction. Who doesn’t want to forget the execrable 1998 film Armageddon? More important than popular culture is the sort of scientific and statistical illiteracy that prevents most Americans from understanding the nature of the threat. According to Michigan State University political scientist Jon Miller, fewer than 30 percent of American adults can read and understand the science section of The New York Times.

The small number of space science specialists involved in planetary defense ought to be especially alarmed by their friends among elected officials.
The small number of space science specialists involved in planetary defense ought to be especially alarmed by their friends among elected officials. Only two were mentioned by the panelists at the 2007 Planetary Defense Conference: California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher and Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback. Rohrabacher has supported Federal funding for planetary defense, probably because it is a backdoor to develop space war technology. Brownback has merely suggested holding hearings on planetary defense. The obvious problem with both of these Republican friends of planetary defense is that they are far from paragons of rational scientism. Rohrabacher has expressed skepticism about the anthropocentric causes of current climate change and even suggested that dinosaur flatulence might have played a role in previous warming episodes. Brownback is on record supporting theistic challenges to Darwinian evolution.

The planetary defense crowd desperately needs some new, less embarrassing friends on Capitol Hill.


John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at jhickman@berry.edu.

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This story was published on March 15, 2007.
 

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